Fossil discovery in freshwater river bed suggests Loch Ness Monster COULD have existed 66m years ago

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The Loch Ness Monster’s existence is ‘plausible’, according to scientists, after fossils revealed that plesiosaurs may have lived in fresh water.

Nessie enthusiasts have long believed that the creature of Scottish folklore, which is often depicted with a long neck and small head, could be a prehistoric reptile.

However, cynics argue that even if plesiosaurs had survived the asteroid strike that wiped out the dinosaurs, the creatures could not have lived in Loch Ness because they needed a saltwater environment.

Now researchers from the University of Bath, University of Portsmouth, and Université Hassan II in Morocco, have discovered fossils of small plesiosaurs in a 100-million year old river system in the Sahara Desert.

The discovery suggests that some species of plesiosaur did live in freshwater – lending credibility to the Loch Ness Monster legend. 

Plesiosaurs (right) and spinosaurus (left) may have both inhabited freshwater rivers 100 million years ago

Plesiosaurs (right) and spinosaurus (left) may have both inhabited freshwater rivers 100 million years ago

Among the most famous claimed sightings of the Loch Ness Monster is a photograph taken in 1934 by Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson which was published in the Daily Mail. However, the researchers point out that the last plesiosaurs died out 66 million years ago

Among the most famous claimed sightings of the Loch Ness Monster is a photograph taken in 1934 by Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson which was published in the Daily Mail. However, the researchers point out that the last plesiosaurs died out 66 million years ago

Plesiosaur was first discovered 200 years ago

The first complete skeleton of a plesiosaur was found by English fossil hunter Mary Anning in Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1823.

The prehistoric reptile had a small head, long neck, and four long flippers. 

It was named ‘near lizard’, because it more closely resemble modern reptiles than icthyosaurus, which had been found in the same rock strata a few years earlier.

It lived from the late Triassic Period into the late Cretaceous Period, around 215 million to 66 million years ago, before being wiped out with the dinosaurs. 

Plesiosaurs inspired reconstructions of the Loch Ness Monster, but were traditionally thought to be sea creatures. 

The fossils, discovered in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco, which date back to the Late Cretaceous period, include bones and teeth from three-metre (10ft) long adults and an arm bone from a 1.5 metre (5ft) long baby. 

‘The bones and teeth were found scattered and in different localities, not as a skeleton. So each bone and each tooth is a different animal,’ said Dr. Nick Longrich from the University of Bath’s Milner Centre for Evolution.

‘It’s scrappy stuff, but isolated bones actually tell us a lot about ancient ecosystems and animals in them. They’re so much more common than skeletons, they give you more information to work with.’

The discovery hints that the creatures routinely lived and fed in freshwater, alongside frogs, crocodiles, turtles, fish, and the huge aquatic dinosaur Spinosaurus. 

The plesiosaurs’ teeth show heavy wear, like those of Spinosaurus, implying they were eating the same food – chipping their teeth on the armoured fish that lived in the river. 

‘What amazes me is that the ancient Moroccan river contained so many carnivores all living alongside each other,’ said David Martill from the University of Portsmouth.

‘This was no place to go for a swim.’ 

Marine animals like whales and dolphins are known to wander up rivers, either to feed or because they are lost, but the researchers do not believe this explains the large number of plesiosaur fossils in the Kem Kem beds.

A more likely possibility is that the plesiosaurs were able to tolerate fresh and salt water, like some whales, such as the beluga whale.

It is even possible that the plesiosaurs were permanent residents of the river, like modern river dolphins, according to the researchers. 

The fossils, discovered in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco, which date back to the Late Cretaceous period, include bones and teeth from three-metre (10ft) long adults and an arm bone from a 1.5 metre (5ft) long baby.

The fossils, discovered in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco, which date back to the Late Cretaceous period, include bones and teeth from three-metre (10ft) long adults and an arm bone from a 1.5 metre (5ft) long baby. 

A leptocleidid plesiosaur back vertebra. The big openings for the arteries on the bottom are typical of plesiosaurs.

Arm bone from a leptocleidid plesiosaur, mid- Cretaceous (Cenomanian) Kem Kem beds of Morocco

Left: A leptocleidid plesiosaur back vertebra. The big openings for the arteries on the bottom are typical of plesiosaurs. Right: Arm bone from a leptocleidid plesiosaur, mid- Cretaceous (Cenomanian) Kem Kem beds of Morocco

The plesiosaurs’ small size would have let them hunt in shallow rivers, and the fossil beds indicate there were plenty of fish around. 

‘It’s a bit controversial, but who’s to say that because we paleontologists have always called them “marine reptiles”, they had to live in the sea?’ said Dr Longrich.

‘Lots of marine lineages invaded freshwater.’ 

Plesiosaurs were a diverse and adaptable group, and were around for more than 100 million years. 

Based on what they’ve found in Morocco – and what other scientists have found elsewhere – the authors suggest they might have repeatedly invaded freshwater to different degrees.

‘This is another sensational discovery that adds to the many discoveries we have made in the Kem Kem over the past fifteen years of work in this region of Morocco,’ said Samir Zouhri from the Universite Hassan II in Morocco.

‘Kem Kem was truly an incredible biodiversity hotspot in the Cretaceous.’

A leptocleidid plesiosaur tooth from the Kem Kem beds of Morocco

A leptocleidid plesiosaur tooth from the Kem Kem beds of Morocco

A leptocleidid plesiosaur tooth from the Kem Kem beds of Morocco

A family of small plesiosaurs  often found in brackish or freshwater elsewhere in England, Africa, and Australia. Other plesiosaurs, including the long-necked elasmosaurs, have also been found in brackish or fresh waters in North America and China.

The plesiosaurs belong to the family Leptocleididae – a family of small plesiosaurs often found in brackish or freshwater elsewhere in England, Africa, and Australia. Other plesiosaurs, including the long-necked elasmosaurs, have also been found in brackish or fresh waters in North America and China.

Veterinary student Arthur Grant was the first person to link the plesiosaur with the Loch Ness Monster in 1934, after he claimed to have nearly hit the creature on his motorcycle. He drew a sketch that resembled the ancient marine reptile. 

A few months later, the Daily Mail published a photograph taken by gynaecologist Robert Kenneth Wilson that appeared to show a creature with a long neck and small head moving through the water. The image was later exposed as a hoax. 

A press release from the University of Bath stated the new discovery showed that the Loch Ness Monster was ‘on one level, plausible’.

‘Plesiosaurs weren’t confined to the seas, they did inhabit freshwater. But the fossil record also suggests that after almost a hundred and fifty million years, the last plesiosaurs finally died out at the same time as the dinosaurs, 66 million years ago.’

The study has been published in the journal Cretaceous Research.

What IS the Loch Ness Monster?

Rumours of a strange creature living in the waters of Loch Ness have abounded over the decades, yet scant evidence has been found to back up these claims.

One of the first sightings, believed to have fuelled modern Nessie fever, came in May 2, 1933.  

On this date the Inverness Courier carried a story about a local couple who claim to have seen ‘an enormous animal rolling and plunging on the surface’.

Another famous claimed sighting is a photograph taken in 1934 by Colonel Robert Kenneth Wilson.

It was later exposed as a hoax by one of the participants, Chris Spurling, who, on his deathbed, revealed that the pictures were staged.

Other sightings James Gray’s picture from 2001 when he and friend Peter Levings were out fishing on the Loch, while namesake Hugh Gray’s blurred photo of what appears to be a large sea creature was published in the Daily Express in 1933.

Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London physician, captured arguably the most famous image of the Loch Ness Monster. The surgeon’s photograph was published in the Daily Mail on April 21, 1934

Robert Kenneth Wilson, a London physician, captured arguably the most famous image of the Loch Ness Monster. The surgeon’s photograph was published in the Daily Mail on April 21, 1934

The first reported sighting of the monster is said to have been made in AD565 by the Irish missionary St Columba when he came across a giant beast in the River Ness.

But no one has ever come up with a satisfactory explanation for the sightings – although in 2019, ‘Nessie expert’ Steve Feltham, who has spent 24 years watching the Loch, said he thought it was actually a giant Wels Catfish, native to waters near the Baltic and Caspian seas in Europe.

An online register lists more than 1,000 total Nessie sightings, created by Mr Campbell, the man behind the Official Loch Ness Monster Fan Club and is available at www.lochnesssightings.com. 

So what could explain these mysterious sightings? 

Many Nessie witnesses have mentioned large, crocodile-like scutes sitting atop the spine of the creature, leading some to believe an escaped amphibian may be to blame.

Native fish sturgeons can also weigh several hundred pounds and have ridged backs, which make them look almost reptilian.

Some believe Nessie is a long-necked plesiosaur – like an elasmosaur – that survived somehow when all the other dinosaurs were wiped out.

Others say the sightings are down to Scottish pines dying and flopping into the loch, before quickly becoming water-logged and sinking.

While submerged, botanical chemicals start trapping tiny bubbles of air.

Eventually, enough of these are gathered to propel the log upward as deep pressures begin altering its shape, giving the appearance of an animal coming up for air.

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